It’s been an intense two weeks for Grace Lang, Programme Director for the Hong Kong Arts Festival. With the five-week Festival in full swing, she’s typically in planning mode for next season. But with a brand new opera commission, Dream of the Red Chamber, closing out the Festival on 17 March – one that has traveled 11,000km across the Pacific – she and her team have been orchestrating a symphony of logistics. I caught up with her just as they had hammered out an agreement between the Dream team and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch for sharing rehearsal space at the Hong Kong Cultural Center. Space is at a premium at the Festival and productions must whiz in and out of venues like lightning.

<i>Dream of the Red Chamber</i> at San Francisco Opera © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Dream of the Red Chamber at San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Dream, with an all-Asian/Asian-American creative team and principal cast, premiered to largely admiring reviews in San Francisco last fall. Daniel Knapp, Director of Production at San Francisco Opera, noted that the co-production with Hong Kong “has really been an artistic collaboration, not just contractual”. The work continues to evolve, with the entire high-powered creative team descending on Hong Kong. This includes Shanghai-born composer Bright Sheng, who, in the aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution, was part of a diaspora of promising young Chinese composers. His generation has since been at the forefront of music-making that fuses cultural traditions. Dream – written for Western orchestra with Chinese percussion, for classically trained voices singing an English libretto about the decline of the nobility in 18th-century China – plants a new stake in this developing genre while remaining, as Lang notes, “firmly in the tradition of grand opera”.

There is unique pressure on the Hong Kong team given the iconic nature of the text from which the opera is drawn: the 18th-century epic sometimes referred to as the Chinese War and Peace. The material was likely unfamiliar to most in the San Francisco audience, but the Hong Kong audience will include more aficionados of the novel who are likely to be more opinionated on how the opera captures literary and historical nuance. 

<i>Dream of the Red Chamber</i> at San Francisco Opera © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Dream of the Red Chamber at San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

The novel is a sprawling saga, populated with hundreds of characters and brimming with a wealth of detail about life in the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was distilled by Sheng and co-librettist David Henry Hwang (the much-awarded playwright perhaps best known for M. Butterfly) into the tale of a romance doomed by imperial machinations. Renowned Taiwanese playwright and stage director Stan Lai, Hong Kong-born, Oscar-winning designer Tim Yip, and former Martha Graham dancer and renowned international choreographer Fang-Yi Sheu round out the creative team.

“The challenge we’re facing with Dream,” says Lang, “is that everything is new.” Unlike the National Theatre Brno, which brought to the Festival a few weeks ago a seasoned production of The Makropulos Case intact and ready to rock, Dream involves a major hand-off even as score and libretto continue to be fine-tuned. Six of the seven principal cast are reprising their roles in Hong Kong, but conductor, orchestra, chorus and dancers are tackling the work for the first time, and a local actor takes over the narrative role of the Monk. There is the inevitable tinkering – some edits have already been made by Sheng and Hwang since the San Francisco première. And Sheu is revamping the dance scenes.

Lang’s team is not fazed by the requirements of the sumptuous and elaborate set, with its floating backdrops and integrated projections – the subject of much critical admiration when first unveiled in San Francisco. Knapp noted that, with the tight load-in schedule, “physical elements had to be labeled, packed, and loaded in such a way that they were ready to go” right into the theatre. Lang and specialist crews for tech, costumes and make-up made the journey to San Francisco in the run-up to the world première last September. Conductor Muhai Tang was not there, but he has worked with composer Bright Sheng before and has conducted the Hong Kong Philharmonic. San Francisco Opera sent a coach to Hong Kong last November so that the local chorus could get a head start on rehearsals.

The challenges facing the Hong Kong team sprung up well before the world première. Three months before the San Francisco opening, Lang was advised that mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, chosen to sing the role of spurned noblewoman Bao Chai, had a commitment that would conflict with the Hong Kong engagement. An exhaustive search for her replacement ended with the discovery of Hong Kong-born Amanda Li, who at the time was completing her doctoral degree at Indiana University. Union rules did not permit Li to be coached at San Francisco Opera, so arrangements had to be made to coach her separately, although she was permitted to observe Opera rehearsals.

<i>The Dream of the Red Chamber</i> in rehearsal in Hong Kong © Hong Kong Arts Festival
The Dream of the Red Chamber in rehearsal in Hong Kong
© Hong Kong Arts Festival

The co-producers share a strong interest in seeing this work live on past the Festival, though, as Knapp maintains, “these new productions are not predictable. It’s impossible to forecast success and broad appeal.” (It’s noteworthy that a 2015 commission by the Arts Festival, the Chinese contemporary chamber opera Datong, has secured overseas engagements.) While the Arts Festival does not release individual production costs, San Francisco Opera tells me that it invested roughly U$3 million in Dream – about par for the course for a new commission. 

In the audience this week will be scouts, notably from mainland opera houses, for China has to fill the grand houses it’s been building at a dizzying pace. These bold architectural interventions reflect the country’s rapid economic growth, social transformations and “soft power” ambitions, a mere 50 years after Mao’s Cultural Revolution effectively banned Western music – and novels like Dream of the Red Chamber, for its dangerous bourgeois extravagances. 

"For centuries, opera has been a tool of power, a spectacle developed and organized by influential Western nations and the elites within them… Using opera to understand the connections between cultures and to experiment with what can bridge them is no longer merely an aesthetic possibility; it’s a moral necessity.”– Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times 

The reputational stakes are perhaps higher for Hong Kong at a time when China is asserting itself in the region, taking advantage of a new American administration’s disarray and apparent pivot away from Asia. The Arts Festival celebrates its 45th anniversary at a moment when China is flexing its muscle in the territory and beyond; whether Hong Kong audiences and mainland opera houses embrace this hybrid East-West interpretation of a Chinese classic – the Chinese classic – is a matter of some geopolitical import.

<i>Dream of the Red Chamber</i> at San Francisco Opera © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Dream of the Red Chamber at San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Lang revealed that there had been some discussion around translating the libretto into Chinese for these performances. But, while an attempt was made, there simply wasn’t time. Moreover, the team didn’t feel a translation was critical, given the sophistication of today’s opera audiences in Hong Kong and China, who are avid consumers of opera in its original languages – as attested by the enthusiastic reception accorded the Brno’s Makropulos production in Czech.

It is peculiarly fitting that a season that opened with the fanciful Orientalist representations of a mythical India in Bayerisches Staatsballet’s La Bayadère, with psychedelic designs of Hindu, Japanese and Vietnamese inspiration by Tomio Mohri (noted for his stagings of fashion designer Issey Miyake’s work), now closes with a grand Western-style homage to a Chinese epic. Hong Kong’s identity has perhaps never been more fiercely contested than it is today – 20 years after the handover of the British colony back to China, with rising backlash against heavy-handed moves by Beijing – and the Festival provides an important arena in which notions of identity and place in the world can be shaped and tested.